Another great start by Gerrit Cole. Another great job in relief by Tony Watson. Another great save by Mark Melancon.
Today isn’t the first time that this story has been written by the Pirates, with Cole going 7.2 innings, only allowing one run (a solo home run by Michael Taylor in the third) and striking out eight with no walks on the afternoon.
The Pirates were able to execute their game plan with efficiency today. Not only did Cole retire batters with three pitches or less on 15 separate occasions, he was able to keep Bryce Harper, arguably the best hitter in baseball, off of the base paths. Gregory Polanco took care of that in the first inning by throwing out Harper on a line to second after a shot to the Clemente Wall.
“I thought we had a good game plan,” Cole said. “Polanco set the tone today with the play in the first inning. He read the ball really well.”
That turn around first base was the only time that Harper saw the base paths today, striking out once to Cole and being put out by two high level plays by Pirates first basemen. Sean Rodriguez made the play of the game as he dove to rob Harper of a base hit and to not allow a run to score, completing the toss to Tony Watson.
“That play by Rodriguez might only be a play that Sean Rodriguez can make,” Clint Hurdle said after the game. “To lay out with a wicked hop at the end – to stay with it… Watson is so athletic that you know he is going to be there. We’re built to pitch and play defense. We got guys that take pride in it.”
Pitch and play defense they did today. The defense definitely did its job, not committing any errors and rolling a must-have double play in the 7th, but the pitching was the story of the day for the Pirates. Tony Watson came in and induced the groundout to Harper in the 8th, and Mark Melancon came in and did his job in the 9th for his club record 30th straight save opportunity and league leading 32nd of the year.
This game was the 11th time this year that Gerrit Cole has gone at least seven innings, and he has collected ten wins off the bullpen’s ability to come in and close it out. In those 11 games that Cole has gone at least 7, Melancon, Watson, Hughes, and Caminero have combined to allow only two runs after Cole exited the game. They haven’t allowed a single run in this instance since early June.
Gerrit Cole understands how important it is to have guys like Mark Melancon and Tony Watson wrapping things up behind him.
“It’s huge,” Cole said. “Obviously you want to go as deep in the ballgame as you can, but when you’re at a point where the best hitter of the game is coming up and at 100-something pitches, it’s nice to know that we have Tony down there ready to get the job done, and Melancon can come in and close it up. It gives you extra confidence to do some things and to take some chances later in the game to get some of those outs.”
Mark Melancon turns the sentiment back towards Cole.
“Obviously, he did an excellent job,” Melancon said. “Getting that double play in the 7th to get out of the inning is huge. He did a fantastic job all the way around.”
Melancon says that it is special to have such a close group of guys that are pulling for each other, and that helps them win games.
“It’s a good feeling – knowing how strong of a team we are,” Melancon said. “I think it stems from camaraderie, working hard together everyday, and pulling for each other. It doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s a group effort. We all make each other better. We pay attention down in the bullpen and focus on the game. We’re all cheering for each other. I don’t think you find that on every team.”
Neal Huntington feels like he has a special combination of guys in Watson and Melancon, citing their stuff, character, and work ethic.
“We’ve got two guys that have quality major league pitches and are dedicated, experienced, quality people,” Huntington said. “They are going to do everything in their power to get the most out of their abilities, and they’ve taken zero success for granted, and they’ve earned everything that they’ve gotten.”
Watson and Melancon’s respective 1.99 and 1.37 ERAs are not just a testament to how well they are pitching, but to how well and how far this team can go as a whole.
It is obvious how important a strong back-end of the bullpen is to a winning baseball team, as the Royals showed last year.
“There’s a reason why the Royals advanced as far as they did last year – they played 6 inning games,” Huntington said. “When they got ahead and the 6th inning rolled around, you’re going to have an awfully hard time scoring against them unless you can get into extra innings. There is a benefit to that.”
With the likes of Hughes, Watson, and Melancon, the Pirates are setting themselves up to be in a very similar position this year.